Fewer shootarounds. More pregame walkthroughs. New rotations. Hopefully some blowout games. The Nets are doing whatever it takes to save their star for the end of the season.
Durant entered Wednesday night’s matchup against the Charlotte Hornets as the NBA’s leader in minutes played. Through the first 25 games of the Nets’ season, the superstar forward tallied 921.7 total minutes. Miami’s Kyle Lowry, who ranks second behind Durant with 907 minutes, is the only other player over age 30 who entered the day with more than 801 minutes played so far.
Durant’s minutes, of course, give the Nets the best chance to win games.
He is averaging 29.9 points per game, is flirting with 50-40-90 Club numbers once again (Durant is shooting 55.3% from the field, 91.8% from the foul line and 33.8% from three-point range) and brings added rim protection and versatility on the defensive end.
The caveat, of course, is the toll the workload takes on his body.
Durant is 34 years old in his 15th NBA season. He is four seasons removed from rupturing his Achilles’ tendon in the 2019 NBA Finals, a devastating injury that jeopardized his NBA career and cost him the entire 2019-20 season.
Veteran Nets forward Royce O’Neale, 29, ranks third in the NBA in minutes at 896 through the first leg of the season. Every other player who ranks in the top 12 in minutes is 26 years old or younger. Of the 40 players who entered Wednesday night with at least 750 minutes played, only seven are age 30 or older.
But the schedule is the schedule, and the Nets don’t want to repeat last season, where they finished eighth in the Eastern Conference and had to survive a Play-In Tournament game against the Cleveland Cavaliers before the Boston Celtics swept them out of the first round. As Durant’s minutes pile, so do Nets victories. After starting the season 2-6, the Nets have won seven of their last 10 games. If the playoffs started today, it would avoid the sudden-death Play In.
But if the playoffs started today, Durant would have the NBA’s most fatigued legs.
It’s a balance the Nets are looking to strike — and the team is looking to return injured players and alleviate Durant’s minute load during the upcoming schedule.
For starters, Vaughn expected Durant to play a ton of minutes against the Boston Celtics. He expected it to be a taxing game — two championship contenders against one another with the recent memory of the Celtics sweeping the Nets off the Barclays Center floors looming in the backdrop.
But the Nets made sure they had two-and-a-half days off after that hard fought loss to Boston.
The Nets didn’t hold a real practice on Tuesday, just an individual work session where players came in and got treatment, got shots up, or played light pickup games. The team also didn’t have a shootaround — usually based at the practice facility in Industry City, about 2.5 miles southwest of ‘The Clays’ — on Wednesday ahead of the Charlotte Hornets game.
Instead, it kicked media off of the court two-and-a-half hours ahead of tip-off to go through a walkthrough. The Nets did the same thing on game day against the Celtics on Sunday: scratch shootaround, just show up to the arena early.
”It’s a little change of pace and really it’s us trying to capitalize on the amount of time that guys can have for rest,” Vaughn said. “In New York different guys live different places. Now, it becomes just one trip right to the arena. That trip leads you right into game time.
”So, we had two games in between, gave them this morning to have breakfast and coffee and everything and have one trip to the arena. So, all capitalizing on giving guys juice for tonight.”
That in-season tweak, the Nets hope, will help preserve Durant’s legs. Kyrie Irving’s minutes are also high. He is averaging the same number of minutes per game as Durant (36.9) but has fresher legs after serving an eight-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team.
The team is also looking forward for opportunities to save mileage in the upcoming schedule. The Nets play Friday against the Atlanta Hawks then hit the road immediately after to play the Indiana Pacers in the second game of a back-to-back.
Not coincidentally, the Nets are expecting Ben Simmons (calf) and Yuta Watanabe (hamstring) to return to the rotation this this weekend, and they are also working the recently recovered TJ Warren into the flow. Warren averaged 27 points per game in the 2020 Orlando Bubble but missed each of the past two seasons due to a left foot that didn’t heal properly after consecutive stress fractures.
Both Warren and Watanabe are versatile scoring forwards capable of alleviating Durant’s minutes load for short spurts.
“The fact that we’ll have more bodies to put in the game, more flexibility in what those bodies look like, small and big. We haven’t seen Yuta, TJ, Kevin and Nic on the floor at the same time. So what does that look like?” Vaughn said. “Does that decrease some of his minutes? So the thought of more bodies back gives us more opportunities to give [Kevin] relief.”
After the back-to-back, however, the schedule loosens from a frequency standpoint.
The Nets travel to D.C. to play the Washington Wizards on Nov. 12, then get three days off before traveling to Toronto to face the Raptors on the 16th. The Nets then travel to Detroit to play the Pistons on the 18th before hosting Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors — after another two days of rest.
“Hopefully you got some injured guys that have been on the injured list back to help you on the back-to- back,” Vaughn said. “Then you take a little sigh of relief, and then the next two weeks after that we’re in pretty good shape. We’ve got a game, three days in-between, with another game. So there is vision going ahead of hopefully getting some of those minutes down.”
Of course Durant has a say in his minutes, and every time he’s asked about his load, he says some variation of “Let me die out there.”
If it were up to him, he might lead the NBA in minutes played every season. He wants to play as many minutes as possible because he’s that good at the game and wants to impose his will on the opponent.
On some nights, like his 40-minute load against Boston, the Nets will need that from him. In order to save his legs for the end of the season and the playoffs, though, the Nets need to find pockets of the year to slice his minutes a few levels.
“[Kevin’s minutes load is] priority number one, in all honesty; it is,” Vaughn said. “It’s just stretches of the season where you are trying to win games, you’re trying to win that day’s game and you hope you get through by playing Kevin those amount of minutes, with the long term view of cutting those minutes.”
There’s something that might save Durant more mileage than players returning from injury or tweaking the practice schedule, though, and that’s taking care of business against lesser opponents.
The Nets haven’t dominated lower level competition in a fashion that would allow them sit Durant the entire fourth quarter this season. The Nets often let opponents hang around, or it’ll build a big lead only to blow it by the end of the game.
Vaughn is hoping all three correlate. He hopes the added rest, coupled with injured players returned to the rotation, ultimately gives the Nets the depth and optionality to handle non-playoff opponents with ease. Whatever it takes to preserve one of the most feared postseason performers in league history for a deep playoff run.
“You can’t say you don’t’ have juice. We gave them plenty of time to recharge, so they should have juice,” he said. “So that part we try to take care of. Now the mental approach. We’ve been talking about each game and trying to win each game and getting better. We have more guys healthy tonight, how we incorporate those guys. We have minutes across the board. Let’s capitalize and take care of home.”